Rejecting a motion to delay the vote until the next council meeting, in a rare split decision Tuesday, the City Council voted 3-2 to move the water and sewer rate increases forward, but not without a last stand by protesters.
And the rate hike discussion is not dead.
Mayor Chris Canning directed City Manager Dylan Feik to arrange another community meeting to include Councilmembers Gary Kraus and Jim Barnes, who are the ad hoc water/wastewater committee members, where they can meet again with the community to discuss ideas about how to structure rates differently than are in the existing ordinance, which was approved Tuesday and will be on the March 6 agenda for adoption. A member of Bartles and Wells Associates, the independent consultants that produced the most recent water/wastewater rate study on which the increased rates are based, will also attend the community forum. The date, which is not yet set, will be posted on the city’s website when it is determined, Feik said.
If, through the community forum or other means, a substantially different idea is found to be feasible within the boundaries in which the city must work – such as the San Juan Capistrano ruling that restricts municipalities from charging in a multi-tiered rate system without justification – the council can revisit the utility rates and make adjustments through a resolution at a later date.
The new water and sewer rates will be reflected in customers’ June bills, a full billing period later than was first anticipated, but something Feik said he wanted to do to allow residents time to understand and adjust to the increases.
Attendance at Tuesday’s meeting was much smaller than other meetings when utility rates were on the agenda and attendees spilled out onto the sidewalk, but an unrelenting handful spoke their disapproval, including Sophie Gullung who found fault with the “regressive pricing” structure. And when she addressed the council with what she thought at the time was a viable justification for a tiered pricing system, she later thanked the council and city staff for listening and explaining the reasons why that option wouldn’t work.
“I am grateful that you are open to comments and to consider new evidence,” Gullung said, adding that this was her third council meeting and she had not heard the explanation before at any of the meetings.
Speakers Paul Knoblich and Don Williams urged the council to take more time before making a final decision.
“What I am not willing to do, is to be silently complicit in forcing Calistogans whose water usage, and thus their wastewater usage, is low, to pay a rate that is potentially many times higher per unit than those of us who use a lot of water, like myself. This is simply wrong…The right thing to do is to take the additional time needed to develop a more considered rate structure instead of giving into the pressure to raise the rates this billing cycle,” Knoblich said.
Williams said, “Good policy requires openness to fresh perspectives. Good policy requires thoughtful consideration of the will and well-being of the people. It requires responsiveness to the approximately 500 letters from fellow Calistogans. Good policy requires, at the very least, an attempt at equity and fairness. I respectfully ask the council to take a step back, and give the ideas we have heard, and those that we have not yet heard, the consideration they deserve. A little delay will not be as detrimental as a bad choice. It’s still not too late.”
Kraus said he spent two hours with Antoinette Maillard on Monday hearing her ideas and frustration and suggested the council postpone the decision on the ordinance, making a motion to do so. Canning agreed and voted with Kraus on the decision.
Maillard asked the council to “look beyond the safety” of things that have always been done, and try a new approach citing cultural and legislative shifts in the country.
“Questioning accepted wisdom on power generation gave us solar panels. A small group, viewed as mentally disturbed at the time, suggested that universal suffrage might actually include women. Recently, society radically shifted its definition of marriage,” she said.
Gullung asked the city to consider separate charges for each of the city’s water suppliers, but Feik said that was one of the first things they looked at — if they could justify charging differently for water the city gets from its two sources, Kimball Reservoir and North Bay Aqueduct (NBA). Because the two water sources are blended before delivery, and other operations costs that are ultimately comingled, it’s not possible to justify a tiered cost structure.
During the council’s mid-year budget review the council learned that funds in the water and wastewater funds were more than what was in the budget used during the rate study, in part because more revenue came in than anticipated and there was fewer expenditures than anticipated at the time.
The Water Fund has about $321,000 more than was anticipated in the June 2017 budget, and the Wastewater Fund has about $422,000 in additional monies.
Canning and the council agreed that after the community forum and the refinancing of Enterprise Fund debt – something that Feik is working on and part of the reasoning behind the increased rates – the council may consider rebating some of the rate hike.
“Once we get the (refinancing) rates approved, get this moving forward so the city staff can move forward with the refinancing and all that, and your point about the budget issue, I think is a valid point,” said Vice Mayor Michael Dunsford. “If that changes something then perhaps we can issue a rebate on the front end to somehow make up for the surplus, but I haven’t heard one idea in all these meetings that has been significant.”
Water rates will increase 15 percent starting in Fiscal Year 2018, 14 percent the following year and then 10 percent for the next three years, Fiscal Years 2020 through 2022.
Wastewater charges go up 15 percent in FY 2018, 13 percent the next year, 10 percent in Fiscal Years 2020 and 2021, ending with a 3 percent increase in the final year of the plan.